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Murray A. Straus

Family Research Laboratory, University of New Hampshire, Durham, NH

This paper supplements the chapter on "The Controversy over Domestic Violence by Women: a Methodological, Theoretical, and Sociology of Science Analysis" (Straus 1999, In Press). It therefore is fully understandable only when read in conjunction with that chapter.

There are several reasons for giving special attention to the National Violence Against Women (NVAW) study (Tjaden and Thoennes 1997). (1) It has been presented to the public as refuting the idea of neady equal rates of domestic partner assaults by men and women. (2) It is not ostensibly a crime study. (3) It is a large and well-designed study. (4) It carries the imprimatur of sponsorship by two respected Federal agencies. (5) Perhaps the most important reason is that it provides an example of how an cumulation of small details affecting respondent perception of the study and its purpose can add up to a large difference in findings.

In some ways the NVAW study is similar to family conflict studies. The data are from a very large (about 16,000) and representative community sample rather than a clinical or criminal justice sample. Because the sample was selected using appropriate probability methods, the demographic characteristics of the sample can be assumed to correspond with census figures, and the survey was conducted by a well respected survey organization with experience in studies of sensitive issues. The interview questions used to create the assault rates are the same set of assaultive acts that in the Conflict Tactics Scales (Straus et al. 1996), which has been used in most family conflict studies, plus some additional items.


The fact that the NVAW study used the same set of assaultive acts as the CTS, and even supplemented those items with additional assaultive acts, should result in an assault rate that is as high or higher than the rates found in other large scale surveys using the CTS. Surprisingly, the NVAW found an annual prevalence rate of only 1.4% (Bachman 1998). This is higher than the National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS) rate and police statistics, but it is still only 1/12th of the rate obtained by family conflict studies such as the National Family Violence Surveys. The following sections suggest that the presence of one type of contextual effect, and the absence of another type of contextual effect, could account for the extremely Iow prevalence rate and the three to one ratio of assaults by men compared to women.

1. The research was supported by National Institute of Mental Health grant T32MH15161) and the University of New Hampshire. This is a publication of the Family Violence Research Program of the Family Research Laboratory, University of New Hampshire. A program description and bibliography will be sent on request.


Framed as a study of personal safety and injury. At the start of the interview respondents are told "We are conducting a national survey on personal safety..." The personal safety theme is repeated at several places in the interview. The problem with "personal safety" as the context is that being slapped or kicked by a partner is typically perceived as a relationship problem, often a horrible problem. However, it is much less likely to be perceived as a threat to personal safety. One reason is the actual Iow rate of injuries (Stets and Straus 1990; Zlotnick et al. 1998). Another reason for not perceiving partner assaults as a threat to personal safety is the research showing that risks associated with familiar activities such as automobile travel are underestimated relative to the risk of less familiar activities such as air travel. In addition, failing to perceive that assaults by a partner are a threat to safety is consistent with the mythology of the family as a safe haven in a dangerous world. Finally, in some cases it may reflect a tendency for victims to deny the potential danger.

Use of "personal safety" and "violence" in questions and introductions. Rightly or wrongly, most men and women who are being hit by their partners, although they may hate it and think it is wrong, do not think of it as "violence," and do not live in fear of it. For this reason the word violence is avoided in the family conflict studies that use the CTS. By contrast, the very first questions in the NVAW study, are headed "Fear of violence..." and the second question asks about "violent crime." The inclusion of"violence" eady in the study and the many questions on injury thereafter, may have served to direct the perceptions of respondents away from reporting the "fights" that are so common in couple relationships and seldom result in injury.

Focus on Assaults Rather than on Partner. The NVAW survey presented a list of assaultive acts and then asked respondents to identify the category of persons who perpetrated each of the acts. Family conflict studies start from asking about trouble with the partner and then ask if the respondent or the partner engaged in any of the assaultive acts. This is a subtle but important difference. In the context of a personal safety study, respondents may not think of their spouse as the offender because, as previously explained, rightly or wrongly, they do not usually fear for their safety. Attacks by a partner tend to be experienced as a different type of event than attacks by someone who is not a partner, and may be stored in memory separately. Consequently, when questions are asked about attacks that are threats to safety, the most extreme and rare attacks are more likely to be recalled. As predicted by the "demand characteristics" explanation for the Iow prevalence rates (see the main text), this results in a much higher injury rate than 1 to 3% rate found in family conflict studies. As predicted by the demand characteristics explanation, an extremely high injury rate is exactly what the NVAW study found (41% according to Bachman, 1998).


Lack of exculpatory introduction. The introduction to the Conflict Tactics Scales was designed to recognize the implicit cultural norm that accepts a certain level of physical violence between partners in a relationship. This was done in the belief that a non-judgmental approach would facilitate reporting physical assaults. The CTS begins "No matter how well a couple gets along, there are times when they disagree, get annoyed with the other person, want different things from each other, or just have spats or fights because they are in a bad mood, are tired, or for some other reason." By contrast, the tone of the NVAW keeps threats, injuries, violence, and safety before the respondent at all times. As noted previously, few respondents perceive assaults by a partner in this way. Consequently, the decision by the designers of the NVAW to use the CTS without the exculpatory introduction may be one reason for the Iow rate of reporting assaults.

Asked Only about Victimization. Family conflict studies using the CTS typically ask about assaults by both the respondent and the partner, whereas the NVAW study asked only about assaults in which the respondent was the victim. It is possible that there is a contextual effect resulting from asking about the behavior of both partners. The CTS was designed to implicitly assume that "both do it" and asking about acts by both partners may serve to further justify and encourage reporting these unseemly aspects of family relations. Consistent with that reasoning is the Iow prevalence rate from other studies that asked only about what the partner did to the respondent.

Asked Whether it Ever Happened, rather than how many times. The NVAW study also departed from the CTS methodology in another subtle but possibly important detail. The NVAW asked if each of the assaultive acts had ever happened. The CTS first asks how often each act happened before giving the respondent an opportunity to say that it never happened. Like the exculpatory introduction, this may serve to suggest that these acts are common. The absence of this "everyone is doing it overtone" may have constrained some reporting of assaultive acts.

Omission of Socially Legitimate Acts. Although the NVAW included all the CTS violent acts, and added some, it omitted the acts in the Negotiation and Psychological Aggression scales of the CTS. These were included in the CTS, not just because of the value of that information, but also because asking them was believed to provide a "context of legitimation." This assumption is based on one of the implicit rules for partner assault: that one has already "tried everything." To the extent that those principles operate, omitting these socially legitimate acts from the NVAW may have further constrained reporting assaults.


All types of interpersonal violence have been decreasing the Western world for centuries, and this includes partner assaults (Straus and Gelles 1986; Straus and Kaufman Kantor 1994; Straus, Sugarman and Giles-Sims 1997; Zimring and Hawkins 1997). However, although the rate of partner assault is decreasing, the decrease is unlikely to have been anywhere near sufficient to result in a reduction to 1/12th of the rate in only a few years. Moreover, there is a continuing flow of partner assault studies among dating couples, and these show no sign of diminution.


The NVAW study found that men assaulted their partners at three times the rate of assaults by women. As explained in the chapter that this paper supplements (Straus 1999, In Press), the contextual effects and demand characteristics that probably explain the Iow prevalence rate for both partners may also explain the gender difference.

Gender Differences in Fear of Injury. One of the most important demand characteristics that may account for the 3 times greater rate of domestic assaults by men as compared to women is the "threat to safety" framework presented to respondents in the NVAW, and the many questions asking about injury. Given the much lower actual injury rate for male victims of partner assault, and also male attitudes about violence, it is extremely likely that far fewer men than women feared being injured and perceived being slapped or kicked by their partner as a threat to personal safety. To the extent that this is correct, it would drastically lower the number of instances in which male respondents defined the behavior of their partner as appropriate to the NVAW interview, thus reducing the rate of assault by female partners.

High Injury Rate Supports the Characteristic Explanation. The Centers for Disease Control was one of the sponsors of the NVAW, and the survey therefor devotes considerable attention to injury. This is entirely legitimate and appropriate, but it may have exacerbated the tendency for some respondents to fail to mention domestic assaults which did not result in injury. If injury is a characteristic of an assault that makes it more likely to be stored in memory as something other than just a "family fight" or a miserable aspect of a relationship, then the much higher rate of injury found by the NVAW compared to family conflict studies, can be interpreted as evidence supporting the idea that injury was a demand characteristic that resulted in three times as many assaults reported by men than by women.

Assaults by Former Partner May Also Support the Demand Characteristic Explanation. If when the NVAW data are released, that data also reveals an implausibly high rate of assaults by former partners (see the discussion of this issue in the main text), it will be further evidence supporting the demand characteristics explanation of the three to one ratio of assaults by men.

Unintended Effects of Original study Purpose. The original purpose of the NVAW was to obtain data on assault victimization of women. Only women were to be interviewed. This plan was modified before the start of the study to add a sample of 8,000 men to the originally planned sample of 8,000 women. The survey of women began in November 1995 and the survey of men began in February 1996. Both surveys were completed in June 1996. It is possible that the interviewers unconsciously conveyed the original purpose of the study to respondents and that this contributed to under-reporting of instances in which a woman was the assailant.




Bachman, Ronet. 1998. "A comparison of annual incidence rates and contextual characteristics of intimate perpetrated violence against women from the National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS) and the National Violence against Women Survey (NVAWS).": Paper submittd to the National Institute of Justice.

Stets, J. E., and Murray A. Straus. 1990. "Gender differences in reporting of marital violence and its medical and psychological consequences." Pp. 151-165 in Physical violence in American families: Risk factors and adaptations to violence in 8, 145 families, edited by Murray A. Straus and Richard J. Gelles. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction.

Straus, Murray A. 1999, In Press. "The Controversy over Domestic Violence by Women: A Methodological, Theoretical, and Sociology of Science Analysis." in Violence in Intimate Relationships, edited by X. Arriaga and S. Oskamp. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage. Paper presented at the Claremont Symposium on Applied Social Psychology on Violence in Intimate Relationships: Claremont Graduate University, Claremont, CA, 28 February 98.

Straus, Murray A., and Richard J. Gelles. 1986. "Societal changes and change in family violence from 1975 to 1985 as revealed by two national surveys." Journal of Marriage and the Family 48:465-479.

Straus, M.A., S.L. Hamby, S. Boney-McCoy, and D.B. Sugarman. 1996. "The revised Conflict Tactics Scales (CTS2): Development and preliminary psychometric data." Journal of Family Issues 17:283-316.

Straus, Murray A., and Glenda Kaufman Kantor. 1994. "Change in spouse assault rates from 1975 to 1992: A comparison of three national surveys in the United States." in 13th World Congress of Sociology. Bielefeld, Germany.

Straus, Murray A., David B. Sugarman, and Jean. Giles-Sims. 1997. "Spanking by parents and subsequent antisocial behavior of children." Archives of pediatric and adolescent medicine 151:761-767.

Tjaden, Patricia G., and Nancy Thoennes. 1997. "The prevalence and consequences of intimate partner violence: Findings from the National Violence Against Women Survey." in American Society of Criminology 49th Annual Meeting. San Diego, CA.

Zimring, Franlkin E., and Gordon Hawkins. 1997. Crime is not the Problem- Lethal Violence in American. New York: Oxford University Press.

Zlotnick, Caron, Robert Kohn, Johan Peterson, and Teri Pearlstein. 1998. "Partner physical victimization in a National Sample of American families: Relationship to psychological functioning, psychosocial factors, and gender." Journal of Interpersonal Violence 13:156-166.

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